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When a House is not a Home: Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s "The House" at the AIC

De-stabilized identity, existential vulnerability, and the thin divide between reality and fantasy.

By Arts & Culture, Entertainment

Eija-Liisa Ahtila. The House, 2002. Courtesy of Marian Goodman Gallery, New York and Paris. © Crystal Eye Ltd, Helsinki

Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila rose to art-world prominence in the late 90s with photographs and video-works that explore individual identity, perception and the relationship between the self and the other. Referring to her works as “Human Dramas,” Ahtila emphasizes linear narrative and sumptuous cinematic imagery. “Talo/The House” (2002), made for Documenta 11, and currently installed in the AIC’s Stone Gallery until November 27, is no exception.

This 14 minute long, three-channel video installation (transferred from 16mm film) details the ostensible psychic breakdown of a lone woman living in an isolated Nordic country house. It consists of a single narrative split into three separate sequences, each projected on to one of three adjacent walls in the intimate gallery. Each sequence contains inter-related imagery, often the same scenery shot from a different angle or perspective. A single soundtrack — comprised of both diegetic sounds and the protagonist’s own narrating voice (alternating between voice-overs and direct addresses to the camera) — helps to coalesce the sequences around a single narrative. Despite, or because of, this disorientating tri-screen arrangement, the results are strangely affecting and resonant.

As the video starts, all is calm. After establishing shots of the bucolic Nordic countryside, we see the female protagonist drive towards her house, park the car and enter. She provides a series of terse statements regarding her dwelling, and the domestic functions of particular rooms, “I have a house. There are rooms in my house…All this is routine.” But soon, order is dismantled, the house becomes weirdly porous, and she is beset by a series of hallucinations; a surreally miniaturized version of her car drives across her living room wall; a cow, which first appears on her TV screen, unexpectedly ambles into her living room. In one startling sequence, she unexpectedly hovers off the ground near her house and begins to fly around the trees. Gradually, conventional structures of time and space break down completely, “Everything is now, here, simultaneous being…Nothing happens before or after. Things don’t have causes.” Towards the end of the video, she attempts to darken the house with black curtains, because “she can’t get away from the sounds.”

Ahtila based this work on research and interviews with individuals suffering from various psychotic disorders, and the result is a composite affliction that seems vague and nameless, akin to way the theme has been treated in art-house cinema. With its evocation of perceptual distortion, de-stabilized identity, existential vulnerability, and the thin divide between reality and fantasy, “Talo/The House” recalls certain mid-twentieth century films by directors such as Bergman, Polanski, Antonioni and Akerman. Ahtila’s filmic methodology is also connected to this lineage, particularly its Bressonian emphasis on diegetic sound, empty space, oblique framing and abrupt editing.

What makes this work so arresting is the way these cinematic reference points are combined with the unique tri-screen installation structure. Not only does this brilliantly mirror the protagonist’s fraught psychic state, it makes us, as viewers, equally disorientated. We frantically, futilely, attempt to keep track of all three sequences, to no avail.  As the doomed heroine states, “No place is just one anymore.”

“Talo/The House” is theoretically rich, and seems equally informed by feminism, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and Deleuzian notions of time and space. But perhaps what make this work so resonant — especially almost a decade after it was made — is the way it eloquently addresses a larger condition, the pervasive yet nebulous spatial/temporal discombobulation inherent in our splintered, hyper-digitized way of life.

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